A Fading Dream: Wild Horses in Onaqui, Utah

As Above So Below


By Nicki Forde, HRL Guest Author

A dream came true for me in June, 2021 in the middle of the Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Area, over 200,000 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, as I watched a herd of wild horses snoozing in the late morning sun. The drive from Salt Lake City to Tooele, then to the dirt road leading out to Simpson Springs along the historic Pony Express trail was filled with scenery this Florida native has never seen before, and a not-so-small dose of anxiety. What if we don’t see any horses when we get out there? We only have two days to see them on this trip, and my heart was skipping a few beats thinking I may not see the mustangs before the BLM removes them.

A mass roundup of our wild horses was starting in July, and it was beginning with this small herd of 490 horses. At that time, over 60,000 of America’s wild horses were being held in government funded holding pens as pawns in a tangled web of greed between the ranching and mining industries, livestock haulers, the folks who build the holding facilities, slaughter houses in foreign countries, auction pens in America, even horse trainers and government officials. I just wanted to see wild horses in their natural environment. I really didn’t want to know about the greed, cruelty and mismanagement of them. I wanted to take pictures of these iconic beings and make equine art that came right from my heart and from my personal experiences with them.

As we got to the old Pony Express station at Simpson Springs, my heart was now skipping a beat for a different reason, because just about a hundred yards from the road were a few dozen horses. Standing in the warm sun with the wind whipping through my hair, drowning out sound, sand blasting my face and arms, I felt connected to the vast expanse of land and the animals thriving on it. I felt honored and humbled to be there in that moment. Birds chasing bugs around the horses, antelope drinking from the spring, a group of young stallions chewing on each other and mares forming a protective cage with their legs around a sleeping newborn foal. The peace, and the way time stood still. I’ll never forget it. A blue roan, a black stallion with a star and a gaping neck wound, several bays, flaxen chestnuts, wide blazes, jagged snips, battle scars, pregnant bellies, sleepy babies and shiny coats. All the pretty horses. I couldn’t get over the condition these horses were in. They were in great shape. I expected to see starving horses with dull eyes and coats, but instead I’m staring into the bright, intelligent eyes of wild horses living their best lives.

“I couldn’t get over the condition these horses were in. They were in great shape. I expected to see starving horses with dull eyes and coats, but instead I’m staring into the bright, intelligent eyes of wild horses living their best lives.”

For these horses, it’s simple. Living and dying on their terms. But for humans, passions flare on all sides of wild horse management. Some folks think it’s cruel to allow the horses to live as wild animals, some folks think it’s best for them and want them left alone. Some see the horses as competition for their privately owned cattle and sheep who graze on public land, and some folks, too many, see them as cash cows and exploit the hell out of the situation. I happen to know enough to know I don’t know much at all. Scientists say the horses are actually good for the range land, and other scientists say the horses are destroying the range. The information is contradictory and inflammatory and it seems impossible to know what’s true. People can argue all day long, but if you want to remove emotion from the wild horse mis-management issue, follow the money. There is an eye-opening blog post from Mary Hone, wild horse photographer and artist, about the actual cost of removing just 435 horses from the Onaqui Mountain area. If you don’t care one bit about humane treatment of animals, you might care a little about this staggering expense to us, the American taxpayer. The removal of 435 wild horses in July, 2021 cost us just a little over 1.5 million dollars. Yes, that’s the cost for 435 horses. They rounded up more than 18,000 horses in 2021. They’re rounding up even more in 2022.

Paradise Lost
Blue Roan Dandelion Wishes_©.jpgIMG_0383.JPG

  • $105,710 - paid to Sampson Livestock for helicopter round up and hauling the Onaqui horses off the range

  • $1,400,000 - paid to G and R livestock to build the holding facility in Sutherland where the Onaqui horses ended up Also, $5 per day per animal in short term holding. About 60,000 horses and burros x $5 a day = $300,000 a day.

The horses I stood with in the Utah sun and wind who once had shining coats, full bellies and bright eyes are wasting away physically and spiritually in filthy over-crowded holding pens. Some get adopted. Some even get adopted into great homes. Many get adopted, flipped from auction yard to auction yard and finally to slaughterhouse once all the money that can be made on that horse has been made. And this is a Federally protected animal. Our government has failed them, and our country is poorer for it.

Back in Florida, looking through the pictures I took of these beautiful animals, I’m inspired to paint them and show them to as many people who care to look. I hope somehow my art can help people feel a little of the connection I felt to time and place out there in that purple mountain majesty with the wind, sand, juniper and mustangs. An incredibly moving and uniquely American experience that is all but a fading dream.

HRL truly appreciates Nicki’s passionate commitment to using her art as a means to consistently keep the plight of wild horses in front of her wide audience. 25% of proceeds from all artwork sales at Drawing On My Heart’s online store are donated to the American Wild Horse Campaign.

You can also read more in our 2020 profile about how Nicki’s history with horses informs her art today!